Getting Kids Reading in Mandarin: The Comic Book Connection
By Elizabeth Weise
We know two things about reading in all languages: the more you do, the easier it gets and the more your read, the better your vocabulary, grammar, writing and understanding become.
Dr. Stephen Krashen has done years of research on this, which has been backed up by multiple other researchers (If you want to do some of your own reading on this, try The Power of Reading: Insights from the Research and Summer Reading: Program and Evidence, both by Krashen.
The research clearly shows that that reading for fun (academics call it “Free Voluntary Reading”) really ramps up language development and literacy. But it’s got to be compelling and comprehensible — i.e. fun and at the right level.
Krashen’s research has also shown that one way to get non-readers interested in reading is comic books, because they’ve got great story lines and also pictures that help draw kids in.
Dr. Christy Lao, a professor of education at San Francisco State University put those two pieces of information together and created a phenomenal summer program to get kids reading in Chinese. The children were either in Chinese immersion programs or from Heritage language schools. Lao had a STARTALK grant from the federal government that allowed her to work with a group of students in San Francisco for several years running. These kids spent much of their summer in a big, friendly room at SF State that is lined with bookcases filled with Chinese language comics, which also go by the name graphic novels or manga.
They loved them.
“Some of these students were reading ten books a week,” Lao says. “We had one boy who read 644 books over the summer and wanted to take more home in his suitcase.” The group of students who took the month-long summer workshop read Chinese graphic novels, lots of them. The numbers ranged from 96 to the boy above, at 644. In one month.
Kids who had never before read a full book in Chinese were devouring the graphic novels/comic books. One mother called Lao to complain: “You said this was just a summer program, but you’re making my child read five hours a night!” Lao had to explain to the mom that there was no homework – her daughter just wanted to read that much.
“What is more encouraging is that when the students finished the summer program, they continued reading Chinese for pleasure,” she says. In the months after the program ended, kids read between 19 and 272 books, in Mandarin, just because they wanted to.
Lao says they had a whole shelf of picture books but the kids ignored them. But the comic books they couldn’t keep them away from.
Sadly, Lao has moved on to other projects and isn’t running the STARTALK reading program any more, but after interviewing her this week for my Mandarin Immersion: A Parents Guide, I started thinking about how parents could replicate it for themselves.
A call for assistance on the various Mandarin lists resulted in amazingly helpful suggestions – what a great group of parents we have engaged in Mandarin around the country!
So here’s are some suggestions:
- This isn’t homework, this is about reading for fun. You don’t want books where the kids have to look up words, says Lao. “I discourage consulting dictionary for new/unknown words. It stops the reading flow and is tedious to do so. Children will be able to figure out the meaning of the words in the story context. If there are too many unknown words, the book is not right for him/her. They should pick another one.”
- Make sure you find materials that use the type of characters your child is learning. Some programs use traditional, some simplified. There are many more comics available in traditional out of Taiwan but you can also find them in simplified if you look.
- Your child won’t know how to pronounce all the characters, even if they would know the words from having heard them spoken. But Lao says that by 3rd or 4th grade most students should be able to make educated guesses about how characters are pronounced from the ‘phonetic radical’ that’s a part of over half of Chinese characters. That gives them a good chance of figuring out what the word is, because they probably already have heard it used at school.
- Let your child find books that they like. There are many genres of comic books and graphic novels – kung fu, little kids, romance, adventure. Let your kid explore. They’ll only read if it’s a story that pulls them in.
- Some of the most popular graphic novels Lao’s staff found are translations from Japanese manga. Don’t feel you have to buy something that was originally written in Chinese. Translations are fine.
- Many comic series have cartoon series as well. You can also buy DVDs or watch them online to further interest your kids. After watching an afternoon of cartoons they’ll know the characters and the kind of story and will have an easier time reading
- Most of these won’t look like the comic books we grew up with, they’re graphic novels and thick. Both kinds are fine, as long as your kid wants to read them.
So how to find graphic novels and comic books? Here are some suggestions from parents across the United States. Some of these sites are only in Chinese, but ask your child to help you buy – it will give them a chance to show off their knowledge.
Parent suggestions about what’s available and where to buy:
The TinTin books have been translated into both simplified and traditional. If your kid got hooked on TinTin from the movie, this is a great place to start. You could even have them read a book in English and then take it away and give them only the Chinese version, so they have to read it.
羊羊与灰太狼Xi Yang Yang (Pleasant Goat and Big Bad Wolf).
Popular with younger kids) in simplified characters.
闹FUN天闹闹漫画系列1 Nao Nao series,
This one apparently won awards from the Singapore Dept. of Education
China sprout is having free shipping above $50 till June 30.
We bought all the graphic novels that Chinese Books for Children carries. They’re located in the Bay Area, so the books came much quicker than the Garfield and Tintin sets I ordered from China. The slow shipping from China cost more than the books, so I don’t recommend doing that.
Nan Hai books in Santa Clara carries My First Scientific Comic Book Series that our 4th graders liked.
Little Monkey and Mouse
Bookstore, online and local in Bay Area, carries many popular comics books in Simplified Chinese such as Smurf, Gadget Cat, Pleasant Goat & Big Big Wolf etc… She I just received a new shipment and will be updating her website soon.
There are hundreds of comics on you can get onto your iPad. I just did a search using the Chinese characters for comic strip (漫画man hua), and got lots of hits.
I was super excited to see that someone had scanned the entire series of小叮当Xiao Ding Dang (or Doraemon, the blue robotic cat from the future) and made them available on the iPad. Do a search for robotic cat using机器猫 (ji qi mao) and you should see it. This has been my favorite since I was a kid, and remains one of the most popular comic strips in Asia.
I had also gotten some 羊羊与灰太狼 Xi Yang Yang comic strips with high-quality graphics for the iPad. My kids really enjoyed reading them (I mean, having me read to them). The benefit of Xi Yang Yang is that they are more likely to be in simplified characters, since this started from mainland China.
I also have some comic strips of西游记 Xi You Ji (Journey to the West – about the Monkey King), also downloaded to the iPad.
Books and Me down in Los Altos has a bunch too… but you should call them and ask first, especially if you’re looking for ones in simplified characters. They tend to carry more books from Taiwan. Their website is
You might find this list of comics helpful, they seem to all be in simplified.
This site requires registration. The hardest part is getting the first purchase done – there’s a credit card verification process that involves an error message that shows up despite successful transaction, and the company will also do another verification through email. Also, shipping takes about a month. Sounds daunting but it’s all worth it because it’s the most affordable option I’ve found so far.
Bookstore based in California with a web site, a search for comics got this:
San Francisco Bay area:
The San Francisco Public Library, main branch and Chinatown branch, both have comics. Most are in traditional characters, although they also have Xi Yang Yang (Pleasant Goat and Big Bad Wolf, popular with younger kids) in simplified.
Gogo Music & Books, 675 Jackson, near Grant, in Chinatown, carries comic books.
The Millbrae library seems to have comics and graphic novels in Chinese.
Sodo, a bookstore at 273 Broadway Ave.,Millbrae, California, has the comic books in simplified Chinese characters. They also have a branch in Sunnyvale.
Books and Me down in Los Altos call them and ask first, especially if you’re looking for ones in simplified characters. They tend to carry more books from Taiwan. Their website is
The Quickly store in Millbrae (where you get pearl tea). I know there are Quickly stores everywhere in the Bay area now, but I’m not sure all of them carry these comic strips.